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Businesses play a role in creating sustainable cities

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Alex Dews, executive director of Green Building United, speaks at the Mayors’ Sustainability Forum at Lehigh University. From left are Joseph McMahon, managing director for Allentown; Robert Donchez, mayor of Bethlehem; and Michael Harakal Jr., mayor of Whitehall Township.
Alex Dews, executive director of Green Building United, speaks at the Mayors’ Sustainability Forum at Lehigh University. From left are Joseph McMahon, managing director for Allentown; Robert Donchez, mayor of Bethlehem; and Michael Harakal Jr., mayor of Whitehall Township. - (Photo / )

Most people have heard of buildings earning certification under the program known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. But cities?

It’s a thing.

And some experts believe it’s a way for municipalities to give businesses an opportunity to lead sustainability efforts while attempting to address climate change.

That was among the themes of a mayors’ forum held last week by Green Building United of Philadelphia and two other organizations at Lehigh University’s Mountaintop Campus in Bethlehem.

Local officials discussed their cities’ commitment to tackling carbon emissions, recycling, storm water management, among other issues.

“The first challenge is, each place has to figure out what sustainability means for them,” said Alex Dews, executive director of Green Building United, noting that every city is different and has different goals.

Several speakers explored the connections between economics and sustainability at the event, the Lehigh Valley Mayors’ Sustainability Forum, whose hosts included the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission and Urban Land Institute. Speakers included Joseph McMahon, managing director for Allentown; Robert Donchez, mayor of Bethlehem; and Michael Harakal, Jr., mayor of Whitehall Township.

Most sustainability work happens at the municipal level, said Becky Bradley, executive director for LVPC. She moderated the event.

Allentown, for example, is converting streetlights to LED (light-emitting diode) lights. As of January, the city has converted 1,300 but expects to convert all 5,000 by 2021, McMahon said. This year, the city is also introducing hybrid police vehicles and has tried to reduce its use of paper, particularly in the police department, he said. Furthermore, the city made many upgrades to its water filtration plant, he said.

Bethlehem, Donchez said, city supports federal programs that would make the U.S. less dependent on fossil fuels and pledged to remain part of the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement. In 2017, President Trump said the U.S. would withdraw from the agreement.

In addition, Bethlehem passed a resolution in 2017 to create a climate action plan. The city is now requesting proposals to determine how to manage the planning process and generate a final climate action plan. This plan would include encouraging green buildings, climate-friendly product purchasing, energy efficient transportation, and community and individual actions, he said.

According to the proposal for this plan, part of this process involves a program called Develop Green Bethlehem Initiative, which includes ways for citizens, businesses and institutions to set goals, and reduce and track greenhouse gas emissions.

The city is exploring the implementation of a stormwater fee for its 2020 budget, Donchez said.

And, he added: “We will start working with businesses to start getting them to reduce energy use.”

In Whitehall Township, Mayor Harakal said, officials recently completed a project that changed all streetlights to LED. He believes there will be a reduction in energy costs as a result.

“We need to embrace the concept of sustainability and make sure we do everything possible going forward in that regard,” Harakal said. “We are falling behind in many efforts.”

One way the township is encouraging sustainability is through promotion of alternative modes of transportation.

The township completed the Jordan Creek Greenway & Trail project and opened a new section of the trail last year, with the hopes of getting more people to use it.

“We were cutting the ribbon while someone was waiting to cross the bridge to go to work,” Harakal said. “I thought it was exemplary of why we need alternative forms of transportation.”

The township also bought the IronTon Rail Trail, and plans to expand it to connect with the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor trail.

Bethlehem, meanwhile, wants to expand its South Bethlehem Greenway into neighboring Hellertown, which would link the path to the Saucon Rail Trail. In addition, Bethlehem is going to study a potential pedestrian bridge over the Lehigh River, connecting the north and south sides of the city.

McMahon acknowledged that sustainability goes beyond energy efficiency, but cities must work to provide benefits for all their residents.

“We’ve got islands of poverty surrounded by areas of wealth,” McMahon said, referring to Allentown.

Right now, millennials and some older people want to move back to the cities, but if the city school districts are not sustainable, there might be movement back to suburban areas, he said.

“For Allentown, it’s an economic struggle,” McMahon said.

Indeed, people cannot be separated from the goals of sustainability, added Shannon Crooker, director of program related investments for Sustainable Energy Fund, a nonprofit based in Schnecksville.

She shared details on how cities can achieve LEED certification through a voluntary pilot program that has certified 89 cities and communities around the world, including Lancaster, which achieved the gold level in 2018. Levels range from certified, which is the lowest, to platinum, the highest.

The Green Building Council uses a performance-based scorecard to determine LEED certification.

She encouraged people to think of LEED certification for their cities as a step in a journey where they continue to evolve, one that could involve businesses

“Businesses could lead programs in sustainability,” Dews said. “I think a lot of it is already happening. In a densely developed place, the majority of carbon emissions come from buildings.”

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh.

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